Relegation fear as refs join the professionals

Brave new world awaits Steve Bennett and his brethren. But they believe they can develop team spirit and win respect
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The name Steve Bennett will always be a prime exhibit in the Men in Black Museum (honorary curator David Mellor). The truth may convey a somewhat different story, but among the myths beloved by students of refereeing demonology, the official from Orpington, in Kent, will be damned for ever as The man who sent off Wycombe Wanderers' Steve Brown for removing his shirt. It was, it will be recalled, a sin exacerbated by the fact that the said shirt was torn off in celebration of a momentous FA Cup quarter-final victory; worse still, he did so to reveal a T-shirt which bore the name of Brown's son, who had been mascot for the day.

If it hadn't been for that infamous occasion at Filbert Street, Bennett might simply be regarded as an effective Premiership referee, quietly establishing a reputation as an authoritative but respected official. The afternoon he dismissed the veteran midfielder in that Cup tie, during which he also ordered an apoplectic Lawrie Sanchez out of the dug-out, changed all that.

Never mind that he actually delivered a caution, which happened to have been Brown's second of the afternoon, and that the action Bennett meted out was a mandatory punishment. In certain tabloid eyes, it transformed him into some kind of whistle-happy, cold-hearted card-sharp. The next morning, the media were encamped outside his house, demanding explanations.

That is increasingly the fate of officials who become enmeshed in controversy, and one that will not be diminished by the advent this season of the 24 professional, full-time referees, to be known as the Select Group, who were gathered last week at Lilleshall National Sports Centre for their pre-season meeting. They recognise, though, that with such increased prestige goes ever-growing scrutiny – by official assessors, TV pundits, managers, players and spectators.

Success will guarantee an enviable career, with an annual retainer of £33,000 a year and a £500 fee per Premier League match, plus expenses. Failure to meet exacting standards will result, at the end of each season, in Bennett and his brethren becoming liable to relegation to the National Group, who officiate at Nationwide Games only and lose 50 per cent of their retainer. "The pressure on us now is immense, there's no doubt about it," says Bennett, 40, formerly head of IT at a Kent secondary school. "But you have to deal with it. You have to keep calm, be controlled, and think quickly. If you're going out, using your man-management and seen to be making the correct calls and doing your job, one bad game isn't not going to lose you your job. But if over one or two seasons you're seen to be not doing your job, you'll be dropping down to the National list."

He approves of the new system because referees will be able to train more regularly. "Every other week, the entire group will meet up for three days as a group, working and training together. It means we'll develop team spirit, like players at the clubs."

He believes this revolution will raise respect from players. "We're getting nowhere near their money, but perhaps we will be accepted better because we'll be more accountable. Judgements will be made and we've got to be performing at the highest level. If we're not coming up to scratch, we won't get games, just like a player who's off form not getting in the first team.

"Critical, major decisions have to be right. You have to minimise the errors. You're striving for perfection. That's what it's about. If they did away with numerous TV replays I'm not sure there'd be so many controversial decisions, but I guess we have to live with that."

Bennett, a genial father of two young daughters, believes in establishing a rapport with the players, rather than taking an authoritarian stance. "We don't just want to flash red and yellow cards about. You try to calm, you try to talk, you try to reason. I've refereed Paul Ince four or five times, and I've got nowhere near cautioning him. You can see when he's about to react, and you shout, 'Steady, Paul. Careful. Calm down.' It's like a running commentary. We're all there to help. We don't want to bin them. I think players don't always understand what we're trying to do."

His manner possibly explains a relatively swift advance through the Kent local leagues, the Conference and on to the League as a linesman in eight years from the date he passed his referee's exam in 1984. Bennett ran the line in the 1995 FA Cup final and has been a Premiership referee for three years. He is also on the Fifa list and, on Wednesday, he takes charge of Paris Saint-Germain v Ghent in the InterToto Cup. "When you go abroad there's far more respect for us referees abroad," he insists. "It's the same when foreigners come here. You take pride from refereeing a major game abroad, but also being an ambassador. They all know you can never bribe an Englishman."

So you can bribe other nationalities? "You hear stories..." He prefers not to go down that route. "English refereeing abroad is regarded as very strong," he says. "They know you're going to be very fair. But they all try things on, so you've got to be aware."

We talk in between his fitness assessment, now a regular part of the professional referee's life, although it has been, even during their part-time days. He looks remarkably composed as he pounds the treadmill. "Keep fighting, Steve," the exercise physiologist Matt Weston and his assistant command him. "Only another 45 seconds, Steve – that's brilliant." The shouts of encouragement continue until his time is up, until he steps gratefully off the treadmill, flings his oxygen mask aside, and gulps in air while blood is extracted from his thumb to test lactate levels. The subject is surrounded by all the paraphernalia required to ascertain the fitness of the elite sports performer, because that is what Bennett and his ilk will be expected to become.

"For their age, they are as fit as many of the players," says the centre's Head of Human Performances, John Brewer. "During games, these guys will cover anything up to 10,000 metres, which is as much as some of the midfield players." An eyesight test is also part of the schedule, contrary to the views of many supporters. Perhaps it should be mandatory for certain suspiciously myopic managers, too.

Referees will need that fitness to keep pace with players who are increasingly resorting to shirt-pulling to restrain opponents. That will now be a yellow card offence, unlike shirt-removal. The irony for Bennett is that, under the new Fifa directives, it will no longer be a cautionable offence for a player to take off his shirt to celebrate a goal. The official maintains that he "didn't lose any sleep" over that incident last season and was satisfied that he dealt with it in the most appropriate way. "As soon as Brownie took his shirt off and waved it in the air, I'm thinking, 'My God, I don't want to do this.' But I had to, otherwise I'd have been suspended myself.

"I remember it was over the far side of the ground and I just said to him, 'Brownie, you're going. You've removed your shirt and it's your second yellow card.' He knew. I walked with him, and as I passed the Wycombe defenders, I said, 'He's going boys, so let's not have a big thing about it'. But they knew, too."

Despite the venom of some of the subsequent press criticism (he was also gratified by the support he had), Bennett is an advocate of more transparency regarding decisions and suggests that the time will come when the referee has his own press conference at the end of games, whenever there is a point of issue. However, overall he takes the view that "in an ideal world, we'd just like to go about our work and not necessarily be recognised anywhere. You don't want to go out and be the star."

We haven't yet reached the stage where Hello runs a feature on "David Elleray's fabulous schoolmaster's resid- ence at Harrow" or "We are invited into Graham Poll's beautiful home in Tring, Herts". But the day will surely come as our elite officials begin to "enjoy" the celebrity of the players they endeavour to control. For the moment, they hope their increased status and improvements in performances brought about professionalism will bring them the appreciation they merit.

Charter For Change

Celebrations: Players will no longer be cautioned if they remove their shirt after scoring, but can still receive a yellow card for unsporting behaviour if the celebrations are considered provocative to opponents or opposing spectators or there is thought to be excessive time-wasting.

Direct action: There will be a clamp-down on players pulling and holding opponents, to be punished by a direct free-kick (or penalty if in area) and a mandatory caution for unsporting behaviour.

Ten-yard rule: The experimental 10-yard rule (when players fail to retreat at free-kicks or show dissent) will be continued for another season, but advancement of play will stop at the penalty area line.

No cards: Managers and coaches cannot be "cautioned" or "sent off", although they can still be asked to leave the technical area. Only players and substitutes can receive yellow or red cards.

The dug-out: Coaches and managers will no longer have to return immediately to their position in the dug-out after issuing tactical instructions, but will be expected to behave in a responsible manner.